Monthly Archive for August, 2011

The MIT Courses We’d Like to Take …

The semester is stirring to start. The students are back. It’s the time of year when the new flood of new-to-Cambridge residents learn their way around the neighborhood.

As the semester starts, here’s a look at some of the project-based classes we’d be keen to take:

(1) Seth Teller’s Assistive Technology
6.S196: Principles and Practices of Assistive Technology (link) A prototype created by the IDEAS Assistive Tech Team.
Professor Seth Teller with EECS is starting a new course on Assistive Technology with our own William Li who helped lead the recent IDEAS winning team by the same name.

Why take it? As Seth says:
In this project-based subject, small teams of students will connect with a person with a disability in the Boston area, learn about this “client’s” challenges, and develop an assistive device, solution, or technology that meets the client’s needs. We hope to serve people with visual impairment, motor impairment, or cognitive impairment,
as well those who need adaptive equipment for daily living. Learn more by emailing: ppat (at) csail (dot) mit (dot) edu

(2) Sandy Pentland and Joost Bonsen’s Development Ventures
15.375J Development Ventures

As Sandy and Joost describe it:

Seminar on founding, financing, and building entrepreneurial ventures in developing nations. Challenges students to craft enduring and economically viable solutions to the problems faced by these countries. Cases illustrate examples of both successful and failed businesses, and the difficulties in deploying and diffusing products and services through entrepreneurial action. Explores a range of established and emerging business models, as well as new business opportunities enabled by emerging technologies in MIT labs and beyond. Students develop a business plan executive summary suitable for submission in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition $1K Warm-Up. Limited to 25.

** Joost is also working on an Urban Ventures course to launch this fall. If you’re interested challenges particularly related to cities, keep track of Joost’s thread here.

(3) Leah Buechley’s Design for Empowerment
MAS.680 Design For Empowerment
We have heard lots of great recommendations on Leah’s class. Here’s the description:

Aims to understand, contribute to, and support communities of people who design, build, and hack their own devices. Focuses on tools that enable non-experts to design and build computational and electronic systems. Students investigate software and hardware toolkits, open-source technologies, fabrication processes, and new manufacturing and distribution models.

(4) D-Lab Courses
Click here for their course list

Sugarcane charcoal developed through MITs D-Lab

Sugarcane charcoal developed through MIT's D-Lab

As always, lots of incredible, hands-on courses are happening through D-Lab for undergrads to take advantage of. If you’re interested in applying engineering and design to development challenges, this is your chance to get your hands dirty. One of their new courses is being led by Libby McDonald, who’s part of MIT’s CoLab, and teaching a course on development and waste.

(5) The Global Health Grad School Course
HST 590 Fall 2011 – GLOBAL HEALTH for Biomedical Researchers (link)

Given the amount of energy Ashley Messina has put into helping organize this course and that Anjali Sastry (check out her courses) is one of the guest speakers, this course is not to be missed!

- – -

This is just a beginning of the many courses out there. Others that we in the MIT Public Service Center are working with include: Ben Eran-Joseph’s urban planning course, Urban Design Skills; Natalie Kuldell’s Biological Engineering courses; and the famous 2.009 led by David Wallace.

What other courses are you looking forward to?

(And if we haven’t said it already, to those who have returned, welcome back!)

Creative Capacity Building

Several of the students were interested in making the car-battery-to-cell-phone-charger device we saw at Maker Faire (I’m not sure I’ve met a Ghanian yet who doesn’t have a cell phone in use at all times :)

Instead of copying exactly what they saw though, I wanted them to come up with their own method of achieving the same thing. So for this lesson, I focused on something a bit different than just straight building something. I taught a bit about the design process itself- roughly following something called a CCB (Creative Capacity Building) exercise. The goal is that they will challenge themselves (now and in the future) to think creatively to come up with a solution that meets all the design requirements efficiently.

Some tidbits I learned:

- a full brainstorming session is not something that most of these students have encountered before

- talkative people are prone to steer the brainstorming session off on their own path

- these students are good at recognizing which resources are available to them

Here’s what they decided on:

12 V battery -> circuit that reduces the voltage -> “extension board”, which in a nice, simple manner provides plug in ports for multiple chargers.

some of the parts

some of the parts

This was perhaps a basic design project, but i’m happy with the portable, simple solution they came up with.

Savonius Wind Turbine

It’s been over a week since I arrived at the Ghana Fab Lab. It took a little while for me to get a hang of how things work here (it felt strange at first to add something formal like a lesson to an unstructured place like this, where people come and go working on projects as things interest them). Also, since most of my teammates have taught here at one point or another, these students have already done many of the basic projects (saltwater battery, etc.).

I’ve since gotten more into the groove here, and have been working closely with a group of about 5 students on a few different projects. Most of what we’ve worked on has been centered around one big project: a Savonius wind turbine, which they made first steps towards while Anna/Maddie/Albie were here.

When we were unable to find a car alternator laying around to hook it up to, it made sense to try and make our own alternator/dynamo. The lessons were therefore focused on the science of electricity generation using magnets and coils.

First, the students played around with a simple hand-shake dynamo: shake the box of coils and magnets, and see that you get a voltage out. This was to challenge them to figure out the interaction between the two.


Then we built a mini turbine out of a sprite bottle to prove to ourselves that a spinning ring of coils and magnets would produce a voltage.


We then went over some additional science concepts/items that would go into the larger turbine, such as single versus three- phase voltage and rectification circuits.

Yesterday was a glorious day of completing the assembly and successfully producing a rectified-to-DC-voltage!!

omo and ike fitting things together

omo and ike fitting things together

daniel - master circuit builder

daniel - master circuit builder




just checking things

This is a challenging project to take on, but it’s something that one can easily get excited about (most everyone that drops by the lab wants to know what it is/how it’s coming along). And I’m confident that the students now are familiar enough with magnets/coils that they could fashion their own dynamo to power something else.

all assembled!

all assembled!

Energy! In the air and out of our devices

Maddie and Anna are veterans at traveling in Ghana, but this is my first time in Africa so I’m experiencing a lot of new things all at once.  It’s incredibly exciting to be here! The energy in the air is palpable. I think Albie said it best that the first couple days are spent with your head out of the window (of the tro-tro you’re riding in, of course), mouth open, trying to soak it all in. What a lively place- activity all through the streets, loud conversations between people on the sidewalks and with the strangers in the car next to you. The people are so friendly and happy, I can’t help but smile back.

After Maker Faire ended, we packed the laser cutter back up into the tro-tro and I headed to Takoradi with the Fab Lab crew, while Anna, Maddie, and Albie headed to the airport. The girls had to hurry over to Peru to attend the Fab7 Conference, which will be another great place to spread the word about PEN and meet potential PEN club teachers for the future

I’m testing out some more of our lesson material with the Fab Lab students (who are fantastic). It’s a nice setting to test these things out because the Fab Lab has lots of equipment that the students are well trained on already.

Besides the chance to build and improve PEN’s curriculum, I’m quite excited for my own opportunity to grow as a teacher. This will be my first time in a Fab Lab, and I’m looking forward to building stuff with these crazy kids.


Maker Faire Kumasi

I (Heather) flew into Ghana a bit later than my teammates, so I met up with them and a handful of the TTI Fab Lab crew in Kumasi last weekend to attend Maker Faire Kumasi.



The event was organized to coincide directly with the end of the IDDS Conference, making it a great place for us to talk with people from all over the world who can help move our venture forward. We spoke with educators, mentors, people interested in energy, and many others. A lot of them are people we’ve admired from afar, and we are excited to have met them and discussed PEN.

Even though the event was smaller than we expected, there were still some great technologies showcased. All of these were made by IDDS teams.

Merengue Nut Press

Merengue Nut Press

Car battery to charge cell phones

Car battery to charge cell phones

Solar Lantern

Solar Lantern

Nut Harvester

Nut Harvester

People watching the Fab Lab's laser cutter

People watching the Fab Lab's laser cutter

Fab Lab group shot

Fab Lab group shot

Practical Energy Network in Ghana!

Hello from Ghana!

Akwaaba to the first PEN blog post!

On behalf of the Practical Energy Network , three of our team members are currently in Ghana, making first steps towards implementing our idea: developing a network of extracurricular high school clubs for students to learn how to build energy devices. The focus is engineering training that presents fundamental science concepts, in a hands-on manner, equipping students with the tools and confidence to design and build their own devices that are most practical for them. You can think of it as enabling students to become  William Kawkwambas, but with an understanding of the underlying science so they don’t get shocked in the process :)

We aim to have a solid set of lessons written and a first PEN club up and running in the first year. We were fortunate enough to be one of the IDEAS/Global Challenge competition winners, so we have some seed funding to help us achieve this.

Our goals here in Ghana are to 1) test some of the first lessons we’ve written 2) network with people who are interested in our project.

For the past two weeks, Anna, Maddie and Albie (Anna’s brother- honorary PEN member) were at the Takoradi Technical Institute’s Fab Lab, testing out a few of our lessons: biomass charcoal (combustion), hand crank generator (gears), and more.

More posts to come shortly!

Biomass Charcoal Lesson

Biomass Charcoal Lesson

Note: This post was written a few days ago, but internet connection has been intermittent. Sorry that it’s slightly behind!